In the sentence:

The number of people who speak English as their native language will decline.

what part of speech is as their native?

  • 2
    "part of speech" is an analysis of lexical items, not phrases. So, none. – user6726 Jun 29 '16 at 4:56
  • 1
    It's an adverbial phrase. – SAH Jun 30 '16 at 5:44

The number of people who speak English as their native language will decline.

The string as their native comprises three separate items: the preposition "as", the genitive pronoun "their" and the adjective "native". It is not itself a constituent, but part of the preposition phrase as their native language headed by the preposition "as".

  • Are you sure that as is used as a preposition here and not as an adverb? Might as well be that I'm wrong. – lemontree Jun 29 '16 at 9:33
  • I would think that a prepositional use would be something like "It is used [as an introductory textbook]" or "John dressed [as a penguin] for Halloween" where the phrase behaves more like an argument to the verb, while "They speak English [as their natie language]" or "I bought a new printer [as a replacement]" behaves more adverb(i)al in that they modify an NP. Although PPs themselves can as well have adverbial function, but I would think that the lexical category of as here is rather an adverb. – lemontree Jun 29 '16 at 9:44
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    It's a typical prep taking an NP complement. Adverbs don't normally take genitive NPs as complement. The adverb "as" is typically used in comparative constructions like Anne is as tall as Mary. Some also see it as a subordinator when it introduces subordinate clauses. – PaulM Jun 29 '16 at 10:56
  • But wait: Is the whole NP actually genitive? Shouldn't it be just the poessessive pronoun? – lemontree Jun 29 '16 at 14:09
  • (Because you'd ask for "as what"/"as who" and not "as whose".) – lemontree Jun 29 '16 at 15:45

As @user6726 already said, you can not assign the phrase a POS, because "part of speech" refers to single words which as their native language isn't.

If you are interested in the syntactic category, you could say it is a prepositional phrase, because the head of the phrase is as which is a preposition1:

enter image description here

as is a preposition, their functions as a determiner (its POS would be a possessive pronoun), native is an adjective and language a simple noun.

You can however not assign a category to as their native like you wrote, because this is not a constituent: You can not separatedly group the words together like this.

W.r.t. the tree this means that there is no node which dominates
a) all these terminals
b) and nothing else but these terminals.

If you don't find this so intuitive, you could also think about grouping all words that somehow belong together into brackets:

[ [as] [ [their] [ [native] [language] ] ] ]

All the words could be "groups" on their own, their native language forms a group next to as, native language is a group and the whole phrase is one as well, but you will find no pair of brackets that contains exactly as their native: It is not a constituent, this combination of words is not a separable phrase. You'd need to include the noun language as well or narrow it down, saying e.g. that as is a preposition.


1 as can also be used as an adverb, as in My house is not AS big as yours; however, as @PaulM and @Araucaria pointed out, adverbs don't take (NP) complements, so the use here must be prepositional.
Thanks for correcting me.

  • 1
    @Araucaria Okay, you and PaulM have conviced me. I'll change my post and my tree. – lemontree Jul 5 '16 at 15:12
  • +1 from me. I think your post would be better without the credit (although it's generous of you :-)) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jul 5 '16 at 16:53
  • @Araucaria I don't know, I felt it would be kind of unfair to make it look like this was all my ideas when it was due to helpful comments that I could improve my answer, so I think it better to mention it ;) – lemontree Jul 5 '16 at 19:17

In the example "The number of people who speak English as their native language will decline", "as their native language" is a manner adverb, which makes it a V-bar modifier, following the analysis in McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English. The V-bar modified is "speak English".

Syntacticians generally identify syntactic categories, or parts of speech, by checking out "privileges of occurrence". We compare other phrases with similar senses that could be substituted. Here, we could substitute for "as their native language" such phrases as "natively", "fluently", "in a fluent manner", and so on. This makes it evident that it is a manner adverb. For describing manner adverbs as V-bar modifiers, please see McCawley's discussion.

The idea that we use "part of speech" only to classify single words and not also phrases, expressed by several other commenters, might have been true long ago, for the ancient Greeks, but is no longer so. Times change.

  • 1
    @GregLee "as their native language" is surely a phrase and not an adverb, even if you want to call it an adverbial? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jul 6 '16 at 9:00
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    @lemontree, it is of course true that if you take the relationship between, e.g., N and NP or V and V-bar to be axiomatic, then it will always hold. But then this part of your theory has no empirical content -- you're not talking about natural language any more, but just about your own ideas. If you're not prepared to consider evidence, I see nothing here to discuss. – Greg Lee Jul 6 '16 at 17:03
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    @Araucaria, How do you know that "as their native language" is "surely a phrase and not an adverb"? Is there any fact about English you can give us in support of what seems so obvious to you? (What about the constraint on coordination that coordinated constituents be of the same category?) – Greg Lee Jul 6 '16 at 19:58
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    @Araucaria, I don't agree that there are two different things in language, what you are now calling "grammatical function" versus "word or phrasal category".. Of course, there may be two different things inside your head, evidently there are, but linguistics is about evidence. ("Upstairs" and "downstairs" both refer to how constituents combine -- "upstairs" refers to how a containing constituent combines.) – Greg Lee Jul 7 '16 at 17:45
  • 1
    @Araucaria, No, that is like McCawley's distinction between external versus internal criteria for classification. What I mean by "downstairs" concerns how a constituent combines with its sisters, while "upstairs" concerns how the mother of that constituent combines. As for example, in "Dribbling rapidly is difficult" you might classify "dribbling" as a downstairs verb since it is modified by an adjective sister, but as an upstairs noun on the grounds that its mother is an argument NP of the predicate "is difficult". (Actually, though, it's not really a noun at all.) – Greg Lee Jul 7 '16 at 19:28

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